‘Hounddog,’ ‘Towelhead’: Resisting temptation

September 12, 2008

Adolescent female sexuality has been a hot topic this year. I don’t want to call it pedophile chic, but, you know, if the training bra fits…

How else to explain the raging hormones and inappropriate touches that seem so popular? OK, so the heroine played by Jess Weixler in “Teeth” – the gruesomely funny horror-comedy about a girl with vagina dentata – theoretically could have been of age. The same could be said of Katherine Waterston’s title character in “The Babysitters,” though again at least part of the film’s intentionally prurient appeal was the illicit idea (and image) of all those sexually aggressive teen-age girls.

But two new films, “Hounddog” and “Towelhead,” move the line. It’s hard not to think that the filmmakers wanted to nudge – nay, shove – viewers out of their comfort zones by forcing them to consider the sexual urges and appeal of 13-year-old girls.

The more accomplished of the two films is Alan Ball’s “Towelhead,” based on a novel by Alicia Erian. Ball is the guy who helped fetishize Mena Suvari in “American Beauty” and made the dead speak in “Six Feet Under” (and wait until you get a load of his newest HBO series, “True Blood”). In “Towelhead,” he blends Islamic fundamentalism, racism – and the budding sexual awakening of Jasira (Summer Bishil).

Jasira is a gorgeous woman-child who is sent to live with her father (Peter Macdissi, who played the slithery art professor Olivier in “Six Feet Under”) after her mother’s boyfriend offers tonsorial tips for her pubic hair. Her mother (Maria Bello) assumes Jasira is the trouble-maker; so, for that matter, does her father, Rifat, a self-hating immigrant who clings to traditional values even as he desperately tries to assimilate as an American.

The fact that the film is set in 1991-92 during the run-up to Desert Storm gives it both an edge and an echo. But that’s just subtext; the real subject here is Jasira’s shaky grasp on her own sexuality, which begins with her discovery of masturbation.

In a new school, she becomes the focus of an African-American classmate, Thomas (Eugene Jones III), who makes her his girlfriend – despite Rifat’s disapproval of American blacks. But she also draws the notice of her new neighbor, Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart), whose bratty son she babysits. Jasira finds herself thinking about Mr. Vuoso as she pleasures herself (while looking at a stolen issue of Playboy that she takes from his house).

When she tries to act on her feelings for him, he resists – and then finds himself obsessed with her. One bad touch leads to another, though Jasira isn’t sure how she feels about the encounters, other than reveling in the attention. She’s drawn to Mr. Vuoso – but also forced to deal with the idea that it’s wrong for him to reciprocate. That guilt is inspired by the intervention of a nosey neighbor (Toni Collette), who immediately sniffs out what’s happening.

Ball uses the vein of racism (Mr. Vuoso’s preadolescent son calls Jasira “towelhead” until she clocks him) and the tensions of the Desert Storm moment (it all seemed so simple, in retrospect) to diffuse the creepiness factor of the sexual themes. But it’s still creepy, if only because this movie seems to want to have its cake and eat it, too.

God knows we’ve seen a jillion movies about adolescent boys suddenly discovering the joys of choking the chicken. But when a girl makes the same discovery, it opens a whole different can of worms.

Part of it is Jasira’s aloneness. She’s surprised at how good masturbating feels. She’s unequipped– though not mystified – by the onset of her first period. But she has to get a stranger to teach her to use a tampon – her father forbids them – and the moment is meant to demonstrate the confusion and curiosity of a motherless female at a transitional biological moment. She has no one to talk or turn to.

The film seems to justify its pervy fascination with Jasira’s sexual self-awareness with the idea that she’s just a normal, curious adolescent. Ultimately, the movie comes down strongly against adults molesting under-age girls (as it should) – but first it wants to make you understand how and why a seemingly normal, moral guy could be lured across that boundary.

Which makes the movie fascinating in a repellent way. It means to unnerve you and it does – repeatedly and in subtle ways.

 

There’s nothing light at all about “Hounddog,” known colloquially as “”he Dakota Fanning rape movie.” Written and directed by Deborah Kampmeier, the film is notable mostly for how dreary it is, as it stacks one Southern Gothic cliché on top of another.

But, like “Towelhead,” there’s more than a little bit of “Hounddog” that forces viewers to think about the sexual allure of young girls, in socially unacceptable ways (as if there were a socially acceptable way). And it has nothing to do with the rape scene, which is not graphic but which is explicit.

There’s virtually no plot to this slice-of-life tale, set in the Southern backwoods of an indeterminate state in the mid-1950s (late enough that Elvis is a phenom, early enough that he’s still playing county fairs). Fanning plays Lewellen, a motherless girl who lives with her Bible-thumpin’ granny (Piper Laurie) and her hard-drinkin’ daddy (David Morse). Her mother is dead but Daddy is involved with a woman (Robin Wright Penn) who, it turns out, is her mother’s sister (and broke up her sister’s marriage).

What little story there is centers on Lewellen’s efforts to find enough money to see Elvis play at the county fair. Most of her idyllic days are spent swimming in the river in her underwear with her pal, Buddy (Cody Hanford) – and occasionally swiveling her hips while belting her own version of Elvis’ hit, “Hound Dog.”
The combination of underwear and hip-swiveling eventually draws the attention of a local ne’er-do-well, who promises to buy her an Elvis ticket if she’ll give him a personal performance of “Hound Dog” in the buff. Cue the ominous music.

Kampmeier throws enough Southern clichés – the lightning-struck idiot, the snake handlers, the healing power of the blues – to suffocate a better movie than this. But it even the clichés dribble out slowly, as if the movie is caught in a slow-acting pool of quicksand.

There’s no denying that Kampmeier wants us to think about Fanning as a forbidden sex object – made all the more tempting by her lack of self-awareness of the urges she inspires in weak-willed men, as she wiggles in her underwear. If there was anything else to recommend the film, that might be forgivable. Since there isn’t, it just seems smarmily exploitive.

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